Climate change and the geographies of objectivity: the case of the IPCC's burning embers diagram

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The challenge of meaningfully communicating an issue like climate change has vexed those trying to convey the risks, probabilities and uncertainties of the impacts of climate-warming greenhouse gases. This paper investigates the history of one such effort – the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's (IPCC) so-called ‘burning embers’ diagram. This colourful visual rendering of global ‘reasons for concern’ has had a chequered institutional and publication history – embraced by some, rejected by others, and used by yet others to argue both for and against the reality of a global threshold where climate change becomes ‘dangerous’. Through interviews and documentary analysis I reconstruct the production and circulation of this diagram in the cultural circuits of climate science, policy and advocacy. I suggest that the notion of ‘objectivity’ is spatial in origin, concerned with distance and visual perspective. As a practice and performance, objectivity is also found to be situated within particular cultural and political formations. In applying these arguments to the history of the burning embers, I narrate a geography of objectivity concerning the visual composition of particular subject–object relations, and of contestation over the practice and objectivity of ‘expert judgement’ as the diagram circulates and encounters actors with diverse interpretive commitments and political objectives. Although excluded from the IPCC's 2007 report after governmental objections, the diagram has continued to haunt climate change debates. I suggest in closing that geographers of science pay greater attention to the visual image and to how norms of scientific conduct are performed and contested through the production, circulation and reception of visual knowledge. This would in turn enable geographers of science to supplement the interest in circulating knowledges with insights into situated interpretations of the meaning of science itself.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)153-167
Number of pages15
JournalInstitute of British Geographers. Transactions
Issue number2
Early online date16 Jul 2014
Publication statusPublished - Apr 2015


  • climate change
  • visualisation
  • IPCC
  • objectivity
  • geography of science


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